This Texas team clearly has a huge upside on both offense and defense. The struggle is in putting together a complete, clean game in which everything comes together. The trap here can be for a team to achieve a pinnacle once, and then assume that’s the new baseline.
It’s a common trap in life to speak of your better accomplishments as your norm. What do you shoot in golf? Oh, I shoot (a low score you perhaps hit a quarter of the time). That’s not what you shoot, that’s your current potential.
The next step for this Texas team is figuring out what preparation and effort looks like when the defense is stuffing the Oklahoma running game and what it looks like when they can’t get off the field on 3rd down against Iowa State. Otherwise there won’t be consistency and those performances will be occasional peaks rather than a normal handicap.
Offensively, what was the process that resulted in Swoopes lighting up Oklahoma or Iowa State? What was the process that resulted in looking helpless and impotent against Baylor?
What process results in the team playing to their highest potential when playing in one of the most hostile environments in the Big 12? This year is a good time for the team to learn these lessons and make installation of the winning process a fixed part of the culture. That’s the major win for Texas football this season, the more important development than winning or losing games in 2014.
That said, if Texas stumbles upon strategies that can take down the Wildcats on Saturday, what could they look like?
Keeping Swoopes going
Texas’ offense is built around Tyrone Swoopes, and both the run and passing games depend on his abilities. The Texas run game thrives primarily due to Swoopes’ ability to punish over plays with play-action rollouts, POP plays (where Swoopes has the option to hand off or throw downfield), and that classic Texas run game kick-starter, the zone read.
If Swoopes is connecting on each of these concepts, opponents are forced to play the run game without favorable advantages or angles. When that happens, it becomes pretty easy for Texas’ young talent along the OL to look much more like a finished product.
All of these Swoopes-initiated facets of the Texas offense will need to be clicking for the ‘Horns in Manhattan.
In a development shocking to evidently every Big 12 writer except myself, the Wildcats are playing pretty good defense in 2014. They are currently ranked 28th nationally in defensive S&P with their main strength coming in stuffing the run and in their performance on passing downs.
Their formula is more or less exactly what it’s been for the last several years. Somehow or another they get great play out of their DL and are simply hard to move off of the football despite relying on overlooked recruits and a walk-on for their 2014 depth chart. They try to keep their linebackers in the box to control the run while their secondary lines up soft and deep in order to stop the deep pass. After playing almost entirely quarters coverage in 2013, they are mixing in a lot more cover 3 this season.
They’ll dare you to try and throw it deep against secondary alignments that are soft before the snap but then they’ll fly downhill when they sniff a run or screen pass coming, and they have players who do enough film study to be veritable bloodhounds at sniffing out tendencies.
Perhaps the main strength of the team this season is the run-support players they have in the secondary. Strong safety Dante Barnett is one of the best run-support players in the country and can excel either as a drop safety, quarters safety, or even playing in the middle of the field. The Wildcats pair him in the middle of the field with star nickelback Randall Evans, who can play soft man coverage and attack the box against the run or on the bliz.
They were enjoying a third excellent run supporter in the middle with Travis Green but injury has pushed them back into the hands of Dylan Schellenberg, who is less quick than the others and can be exploited in space.
Texas has to continue to use concepts like the POP skinny post play that Swoopes threw to Marcus Johnson for an early touchdown to keep these three from flying downhill against the run or they will very easily corral the Texas run game and make stops very close to the line of scrimmage. Remember, this unit nearly shut down Auburn.
Iowa State was playing a coverage here that looks to get the free safety in the box to stop the run and leaves the boundary corner in an isolated match-up against that receiver. Swoopes was reading that safety on the hand-off to make sure he didn’t get in position to help the corner, then he fires the ball in. Simple read, simple footwork, right in Swoopes’ wheelhouse.
Texas will need similar concepts against KSU to keep Barnett or Evans from easily flying downhill as soon as they see run blocking.
Outside at cornerback, the Wildcats have Morgan Burns and Danzel McDaniel. KSU’s normal “bend don’t break” strategy of allowing the comeback and hitch routes on the outside are less ideal against a QB with the arm strength of Swoopes but if he gets lazy or careless, they will burn him.
Burns is a typical Kansas State corner who is reasonably good playing their style of off coverage and has some speed to bait throws and jump routes on the outside with three interceptions on the year.
Perhaps the greater concern is the excellent run support KSU gets from their other corner, McDaniel. He’s the best tackling cornerback in the country and will make hits that impact the game and set the tone for the Wildcats.
KSU’s linebackers are small and feisty, each weighing in at under 220 pounds. Jonathan Truman had 17 tackles against Oklahoma and is the classic Wildcat inside linebacker of this era; a former walk-on turned college warrior through intense work in the gym.
While Truman and the weakside backer Dakorey Johnson are fast to the ball, if the Texas OL can handle the stout Wildcat tackles without keeping them double-teamed the entire play and get the guards out to the 2nd level quicker off the snap, neither of them are built for fending off Kent Perkins.
The Wildcats are not a heavy blitzing team that will be able to seriously test Swoopes’ diagnosis and response to pressure. They just don’t emphasize the blitz much and clearly don’t spend a ton of time learning to use disguise. That said, they will frequently bring one extra blitzer off the edge, usually a linebacker or defensive back, which can allow stud DE Ryan Muller to shoot through an interior gap.
Overall, the Longhorns challenge here is simply playing a cleanly executed game against a defense that specializes in “bend don’t break” tactics and is loaded with quality tacklers in the defensive backfield. Their goal is to wait for your mistakes and this Texas squad is a mistake-prone team.
Fending off the Wildcats attack
A big time Oklahoma fan and writer sent me this screen shot from the Wildcats’ upset of Oklahoma in Norman last weekend with the caption “How is this fair?”
The KSU offensive line have worked their way beyond the allowed three yards past the line of scrimmage when Waters releases the ball, perhaps at about 3.5 yards.
I immediately teased him with points about how OU has been pushing the envelope in regards to holding or getting OL downfield and engaged on screen passes. His response, “yeah, but KSU would be **** without this play.”
In one sense that’s bitterness from the fan of a losing team, but in another sense it’s a fair assessment of what the identity of the Wildcat offense is with QB Jake Waters. KSU has always been a group heavily influenced by single-wing offensive tactics with the QB as a featured part of the run game. With Waters at the helm, they’ve made the POP play a huge part of their identity.
They have pass options attached to many of their runs and can attach downfield throws to QB draw, power, or zone. The latter play did tremendous damage to the Sooners and allowed Waters to hit them for 9.8 yards per pass attempt and subsequently opened up the run game to land five yards per clip.
Oklahoma had more or less solved the older, Collin Klein KSU run-game with aggressive quarters safeties, which you see them attempt in the above clip. That approach was totally overwhelmed by KSU’s POP plays.
Another issue at play in defensing the Wildcats is stopping Tyler Lockett, a truly terrifying deep threat. Lockett has actually been quieter this season due to nagging injuries (he’s only 5-foot-11, 175 pounds) and teams figuring out to deny him vertical releases and forcing him to beat them underneath where his small frame often shies from contact.
The approach to stopping KSU’s normal run game and single-wing style POP plays cannot come at the expense of losing control of Lockett or everything can come apart in a hurry.
This can become particularly difficult when handling their spread sets that put a fullback in the backfield:
What this formation accomplishes for Kansas State is that the defense has to spread out to account for all the receiving threats but they still have a running back (Waters) in the backfield who has a lead blocker (the fullback, Gronkowski) to create extra gaps inside.
These issues are then compounded by the possibility of Waters running behind a lead blocker but with the option of throwing downfield.
Philosophically, the KSU run game works by double-teaming defensive linemen and training shifty running backs to manipulate the linebackers into the wrong gaps or into the waiting arms of their OL before darting through holes.
Waters can do this and so can their main backs, Charles Jones and DeMarcus Robinson.
The key to defending this attack from Texas’ defense is with great awareness and discipline from the linebackers and deep safety. Texas’ single-deep safety coverages help to keep linebackers in the box and have players accounting for the receivers on KSU’s favorite POP plays, but we’ve seen that Texas’ linebackers and non-Jason Hall deep safeties can really struggle with a run game that attacks you with misdirection and variety.
That’s the Kansas State offense to a “T”.
Likely a main reason that Mack Brown’s Texas teams so consistently struggled with Snyder’s Wildcats was the fact that his teams always prepare very specifically for each opponent whereas Mack’s Texas teams had a “we do what we do” philosophy. Texas was going to line up and beat you doing what they do. KSU was going to beat you by enacting a detailed plan that put its inferior players in position to attack all of your weaknesses.
Consequently, you can’t consistently beat Kansas State unless you are either far more talented or you match their intensity of preparation. Texas is not yet a squad that is just miles better than KSU in terms of talent and developed skill. The Texas OL is not going to be able to just line up and blow the Wildcats DL off the ball if Auburn wasn’t able to do that.
The Wildcats skill players run great routes and make great reads, they are well-coached to a level that makes them comparable to Texas’ superior athletes.
On top of all this, the game is going to be on the road which means that there won’t be thousands of fans in burnt orange to lift up the spirits of Texas’ young athletes when the chips get down. They haven’t played in an environment like that yet as their tougher games have been played in Austin or in Dallas with tons of fans around them. They certainly haven’t played in a hostile road environment.
They’re going to find that the Wildcats will present a variety of challenges that young players like Swoopes have not yet faced and some of Texas’ veterans have not necessarily risen to meet.
Charlie Strong’s Longhorns are going to learn some big lessons from this game one way or the other. Don’t be surprised if those lessons are more of the “ah…what we should have done is…” variety.